How Ferrari returned to the front in F1… and what it has to do to stay there

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SAKHIR, Bahrain — The sense of relief almost matched the flood of emotion as the opening bars of the Italian national anthem rang out over the Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday night. After 45 races without a single victory, Ferrari finally reclaimed the top two steps of Formula One’s podium, and with it re-established itself as a championship contender for the first time in over three years.

In truth, anything short of fighting for victory on the dawn of F1’s new era would have been considered a failure for F1’s most successful team. Ferrari’s fallow period has only been tolerated because of the promise of a return to the top under F1’s new car regulations this season.

For the past year, positive noises had leaked out of Maranello about the potential of the new car and its power unit. The first preseason test in Barcelona appeared to validate that optimism, but those within the team were still keen to temper the hype. Ferrari had shown promise in testing before only to disappoint at the opening round.

“I think the expectations are there, we created them, but that’s Ferrari,” team principal Mattia Binotto said after the race. “I think everybody was waiting for us and after some difficult seasons I think we pushed a lot and we worked very hard back at the factory.

“The team is great and it’s good to see that at least today we are performing OK. Tomorrow will be another day, I that know pretty well — I know that tomorrow can be even tougher because the race is long.

“It’s another situation but at least the quali shows the car is performing well. The season will be long but we want to be part of it.”

Binotto’s modesty is understandable given the pressure he’s faced at the helm of Ferrari in recent years, but there was no questioning the car’s step in performance in Bahrain. The margin over Red Bull may have been minimal — just 0.1s in qualifying and even less at some stages in the race — but when it mattered Charles Leclerc held the edge over Max Verstappen. He had the race under control long before Red Bull’s double retirement and Carlos Sainz‘s presence in the top three meant the team took maximum points when Red Bull faltered.

Leclerc’s personal performance will also be a source of optimism for Ferrari. If the team is to win its first driver’ championship since 2007, it will need either Leclerc or Sainz to be a match for Verstappen over 23 races, which is no mean feat.

Last year, Lewis Hamilton discovered the lengths Verstappen will go to in order to win and the aggression with which he will race in order to retain position. But, on Sunday at least, Leclerc had the measure of the reigning world champion, especially when they shared the same piece of race track between Turn 1 and Turn 4 for three laps running.

On laps 17, 18 and 19, Verstappen lunged down the inside of Leclerc at Turn 1 but on each occasion the Ferrari driver retook the lead shortly after. From the outside Leclerc always looked in control, luring Verstappen into a move at Turn 1 knowing he would repass him on the following straight with the help of his Drag Reduction System (DRS).

“On the first two overtakes, I knew he was going to try something so I wasn’t surprised,” Leclerc said. “I expected it and actually it was working for me, because if he didn’t overtake there he would have overtaken me at Turn 4 with the DRS.

“So I was on purpose braking very early into Turn 1 in order to be just behind for the DRS detection and get it on the run to Turn 4 to get him back. So this always worked out.

“On one overtake [the third attempt] I was surprised; the one where he locked up, but it was not a problem for me. It’s the type of racing that I like. It was hard racing, as we have seen with Max in the past, but I also am an aggressive driver in the way I fight with others and I enjoy racing like this.”

Leclerc’s confidence and composure also shone through over the team radio on the final lap. Three years ago in Bahrain, the Ferrari driver missed out on the first victory of his career when one of the six cylinders in his engine developed a misfire and dropped him from first place to third.

At the same point of the track where he had noticed the issue in 2019, he radioed his engineer on the final lap on Sunday to say “There’s something strange with the engine”. The line was delivered in deadpan style, but his engineer seemed to recognise the joke and somewhat nervously laughed it off .

Nevertheless, given the problems faced by both Red Bulls in the final two laps and how much was at stake on Sunday evening, it took real confidence in the car for Leclerc to tempt fate with such a message.

Can Ferrari fight for the title?

One reason why Ferrari has started the 2022 season so well is precisely because it spent the past two years in the midfield.

For starters, with no championships to play for last year, the team switched its full focus to 2022 earlier than rivals Red Bull and Mercedes, giving it more money under F1’s budget cap to throw at this year’s car. Added to that, Formula One brought in new rules at the start of 2021 to help struggling teams move back up the grid, including a formula to allow teams that finished lower down the order more aerodynamic testing capability — both in the wind tunnel and with Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD).

So when Ferrari reached its lowest point for 40 years by finishing sixth in the championship in 2020, it had the silver lining of giving the team more development potential for this year’s car. That extra time in the wind tunnel and CFD capability was clearly well spent, with Ferrari’s engineers dreaming up a unique take on the 2022 rule book with one of the most extreme design concepts on this year’s grid.

What’s more, unlike rivals Red Bull and Mercedes, who both brought major updates to the second test, Ferrari only made minor tweaks to details on its car following the first test in Barcelona, giving it a more stable platform to build on and a more comprehensive understanding of its car ahead of the first race.

“It’s a good starting point, no doubt,” Binotto said on Sunday evening. “The one-two was not what we were expecting or even what we were hoping for, but it’s what we got.

“I think as we said, Charles did a fantastic race and for Carlos it was a bit more of a difficult weekend for him. But overall we should not forget there has only been six days of testing, so three days per driver, and trying to understand and learn and adapt to the car, in that respect there is still much to learn.

“I’m pretty sure at the next race we start to exploit more of the car and there is still potential in the car, certainly. I think Carlos is a good example of there being more potential to extract.

“As we said, we need to develop the car, but when you have a good baseline and you are still developing you need to make sure somehow that whatever you are bringing to the car is bringing performance. That is even more important now that we have a budget cap, because we cannot take a wrong turn [in development] because we have fewer opportunities to develop the car, and whatever we do we need to make sure is the proper and the right direction.”

However, many engineers in the paddock have warned against reading too much into the relative performances of the cars in Bahrain. The track’s rough surface, lap-time emphasis on low speed corners and its long straights mean it is not representative of a lot of the circuits on the F1 calendar. In 2019, the Ferrari also looked like the class of the field in Bahrain, but over the course of the season it was still a distant second to Mercedes.

“At first I think the others are very, very strong and proved to be strong in the qualification, it was really a matter of pace,” Binotto added. “I think today they could have been stronger, but maybe there are some reliability issues that are not perfect on their car from what we understand from the radio communications. But they would have been very fast otherwise.

“If you look at the [second] stint of Max on used tyres, he was keeping up with the pace of Charles. We should not forget that they are the world champions and the favourites and what we must try to do is do our best.

“[The race in] Jeddah in a week’s time could be a completely different picture and I think we need to wait, as I always said, four or five races before we can assess in full.

“To answer your question, I would wait four or five races [to know whether Ferrari can fight for the title].”

Nightmare for Red Bull, damage limitation for Mercedes

Ferrari’s championship chances have been boosted by its strong start relative to its main rivals. There was very little to choose between Ferrari and Red Bull in terms of performance in Bahrain, but a problem with the fuel system on both Red Bulls meant Ferrari finished the grand prix with a maximum 44 points while its main rivals scored zero.

Red Bull hopes to find a fix in time for next week’s race in Saudi Arabia. The early signs are that it was not linked to one of the fuel pumps that has become a standardised part across all 10 teams this year. It may also be worth noting that Red Bull was one of only a few teams that did not complete a race simulation during testing, in which minor but critical issues to do with the fuel system are often ironed out.

“It was totally out of the blue,” team boss Christian Horner said. “It’s something we haven’t seen previously.

“We’ll strip the cars, we’ll get into it and understand what the issue was. I suspect it’s something similar between both cars because the symptoms looked very similar.”

Meanwhile, Mercedes’ performance issues may take longer to fix. Both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell couldn’t match the pace of the Ferraris and Red Bulls over a race distance, and when Hamilton attempted to challenge Sergio Perez in the first stint he overheated his tyres and had to back off.

Mercedes has taken a completely different approach to the new regulations compared to Ferrari, but at this stage the team is not worried that it has picked the wrong path. Although a significant upgrade at the second test, including slimmed-down sidepods, did not bring the performance the team had hoped for, the problems appear to be related to the underfloor aerodynamics rather than the upper surfaces of the car that changes so dramatically during preseason.

Third and fourth was better than Mercedes could have hoped for if the Red Bulls had made the finish, so the team approached much of the race more as an extended test session rather than a truly competitive exercise.

“In a way it was a new situation for all of us because we are somewhere in no man’s land between P3 or P4 and P6,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “Therefore you can experiment more.

“Fifth and sixth would have been the reflection where we are. I think we were competitive on the first few laps on the soft tyre and we were able to hold on, if not be faster, than some of the guys in front. But we had more [tyre] degradation.

“Nevertheless, it was a good, useful test for us. We tried the hard tyre, which obviously wasn’t great. We lost a second a lap and also on the medium, we weren’t really able to extract performance so there’s some really good learning.

“There’s so many areas we just need to improve in order to climb back to race with the guys in front.”

The problem Mercedes has faced centres around how low it can run the car to the ground. Going with a lower ride height unlocks more downforce from the car’s underfloor aerodynamics but also makes them more sensitive to bumps and the possibility of suddenly stalling.

If the airflow under the car starts to leak out, it suddenly loses downforce, resulting in the bouncing on the straights that plagued a number of teams during testing. Mercedes is hopeful its problems can be solved without a major rethink of its concept, allowing it to extract the true performance from its package while continuing on its intended development path.

“I think more than really bringing parts, it’s understanding how we can unleash the performance that we believe to be in the car — or that we hope to be in the car,” Wolff added. “Before throwing bits at it in terms of performance, this is where I would see it.”

However, fail to make progress and any hope of championship success could slip away from Mercedes within the first third of the season.

“It’s too early really to look at the championship as it stands, but if we look at the pecking order today, it seems very, very far — a very long shot — to even think about being in contention for any of the championships,” Wolff said. “But if I look at it as a single race weekend, we probably scored the maximum of points that we could have.

“We need to take it from there. Every single weekend counts and at the moment, it is singular events. Because realistically, when you’re third on the road, you can’t think about winning.”

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